John Scofield: Swallow Tales

Ian Patterson By

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John Scofield: Swallow Tales
It was Gary Burton who brought Steve Swallow—with electric bass in tow—into the teaching ranks of the Berklee College of Music in the early 1970s. Burton had already introduced Swallow's songs to the students, one of whom, a fresh-faced John Scofield, would go on to play and record with both men. Scofield and Swallow's musical partnership has proven the more durable, having begun in the late 1970s. Here, the former teacher and student pick up where they left on the Grammy-winning Country For Old Men (Impulse! 2016), with Scofield putting his inimitable stamp on nine Swallow originals.

The nine straight-ahead tracks cover almost half a century of Swallow's career, from the early-mid 1960s, when Swallow was part of Burton's innovative groups, up until the early 2010s. Singable melody and harmonic depth are the common threads throughout. "She Was Young," originally tailored by Swallow to a poem by Robert Creeley—a major influence—and sung by Sheila Jordan on the album Home (ECM, 1980), is a beautiful feast. Bill Stewart—no stranger himself to Scofield—switches back and forth between brushes and sticks as the music waxes and wanes. Swallow keeps the melody flowing as Scofield, in top form, digs deep, but it is in the trio's extended workout where real sparks fly.

These compositions could almost have been written for Scofield, who revels in the ever-bright melodic terrain, the effortless swing that Swallow and Stewart engender, and the changes that invite fresh improvisational impetus at every turn. Swallow's compositions are rooted, but always moving forward. They are also rather handsome. The aforementioned "She Was Young," and the exquisitely tender ballad "Away," are particularly gorgeous. Scofield is one of the most exciting electric guitarists of his generation, but he is often at his most alluring at relaxed tempi; the slower reworking of "Awful Coffee," which features a typically singsong solo from Swallow, and the gently strolling "Hullo Bolinas" reveal the nuance and soul in Scofield's broad-ranging vocabulary.

The modern-day jazz standard "Falling Grace" sees Scofield and Swallow in expansive mode, their respective solos imbibed with the composition's underlying melodic charm. Stewart, a dynamic presence throughout, comes into the spotlight with a solo turn on "Eiderdown," but in truth, his ceaselessly inventive playing throughout the album is a constant source of surprise and delight. Here, Stewart employs his ride cymbal like a cracking whip that spurs Scofield on. "Radio," from the Times Square (ECM, 1978) album with Burton, Roy Haynes and Tiger Okoshi, sees Swallow's deceptive walking bass line and Stewart's more overtly fractured rhtyhms provide the friction that ignites Scofield's blue touch paper.

Swallow Tales, Scofield's heartfelt homage to a significant figure in modern jazz, exudes the spontaneity and excitement arising from a single afternoon in the studio. Swallow's playing is as lithe as ever, while his compositions, channelled through such caring, intuitive hands, sound evergreen.

Track Listing

She Was Young; Falling Grace; Portsmouth Figurations; Awful Coffee; Eiderdown; Hullo Bolinas; Away; In F; Radio.


John Scofield: guitar; Bill Stewart: drums; Steve Swallow: bass.

Album information

Title: Swallow Tales | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: ECM Records

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